Pentecost: Act Two

12 08 2007

My thoughts on the first act of Pentecost can be found here. As with my first entry, I am giving away key plot points in my discussion. If you’d prefer not to have the play spoiled, please read no further. Writing both of these entries I’ve found to be quite a difficult process, particular since I realize that reading these might be confusing if you haven’t seen the plays. Still, I want to get my thoughts down and since the work itself is so complex, my jumbled ideas and reactions are my attempt to grapple with that complexity.

The second act of Edgar’s play deals with many different issues, but at the centre for me is the issue of language, story and identity. The play refers in a few spots the story of the Tower of Babel and in so doing calls attention to the division of language and the conflict which can and does result from not being able to make ourselves understood or understand other people, languages and cultures. Edgar also incorporates this issue by having the actors speak several different languages on stage – not all of which is translated directly. That’s not to say that you cannot understand what needs to be understood. Though the different languages contribute to the confusion and chaos at points, key points are made understood, the refugees translate for one another and as a viewer you are able to follow, even if at first it seems a struggle and when the translation does come it is in a broken sort of way. Those fragments of translation are perhaps more effective, because you still need to be the effort in to put together a whole and what is left out or implied is sometimes more powerful.

The play’s title obviously references Pentecost and it is there that language and story and unity interest in the play. The refugees’ stories or histories of persecution are related early in the second act in a very direct and overwhelming way. Leo has indicated a desire right towards the start of Act Two to know the names of the captors (though it seems this might be a ploy for information on the captors rather than a genuine interest on his part) and Yasmin, who has assumed a leadership role within the group of refugees, begins sharing their stories. The persecution and suffering she details is overwhelming in its directness and seemingly unending, but she finally by saying “So, do you know enough?” – a statement which suggests there is more to hear but that Leo (and those like him who ask to know) isn’t prepared to hear what he’s asked to know and would prefer not to really know what these people have suffered. The stories do continue, however, a page later with the background of Fatima. It has been written down in English so Oliver reads it:

Her brother is conscripted to the Iraqi army and refuses. he is taken to a camp and three months later he turns up a half-wit with one eye. She is by this time in the mountains but decides to take her brother back to – Qala Diza? where her mother now lives with her son. When they arrive. When they arrive. (71)

He stops before the end because – as with Yasmin’s verbal testimony on the refugees’ behalf – it is so horrific. Her story is returned to at two more points in the act, each time getting a bit more information, but her story is never told with the same bluntness that the other refugees’ histories are and this makes her story much more haunting and terrible to consider.

Edgar makes a point of stressing at the start of the act how much the hostages and refugees don’t know about each other, with Yasmin in particular stressing that people like Leo and Oliver who represent Western culture and values have made not effort to understand their position. She says:

In the time of the crusades, the Muslim armies exchanged Christian prisoners for Christian books. Because, perhaps, they realised it is preferable to know your enemy than to hold him. And indeed from then to now, by all the means whereby you have invaded us – from the star of Bethlehem to satellite TV – you have taught us oh so much much more than you will ever take the pains to learn of us. (60)

There is no questionning the distance between the two groups, but that divide is bridged as the act continues. A character that really caught my attention in the stage production was Amira. She is the first of the refugees that really begins befriending and connecting with the hostages. They discuss Fatima, Oliver asking “I wonder. How you grieve. When you find that. How you lament,” and Amira explaining that in Fatima’s faith, “It is for them great blasphemy, to despair at a loved one being called to God” (89). This discussion is striking on stage and it also serves as an important key to unlocking the secret of the painting and its true origin. Amira also shares the story of a cousin with the hostages, about her cousin’s persecution, again not going into graphic detail.

What occurs throughout this part of the play is a breaking down of walls between the hostages and their captors. They begin to share stories, initially folk or fairy tales and this leads into shared laughter over part of American culture. Story and culture unite them, a divide occurring when Fatima bursts in and says they must not interact with the hostages. “We have threatened to kill them,” she says, “How can we kill them now? What will they think of us?” (88). The personal connections they have made will prevent the refugees from following through on their threats. This cycle of unity through art and/or story and the disruption from the outside is repeated twice more in the act. Amira, who plays the cello, initially refuses to play, finally does and this again unites everyone in the Church and they share in the art until Karolyi interrupts with a response to the refugees demands. Some of the refugees have been offered a place to go, but not all and this divides the entire group, those who are grateful to have some where to go, those who have not be accepted and who lash out and try to undermine those who have been more fortunate. Leo even becomes involved questioning how a woman like Fatima could possibly have been excluded. Karolyi explains, “In this part of Europe, it is a little arbitrary sometimes, whether one is cast as victim or accomplice. An invader or a liberator. The object of unjust persecution or a voluntary exile” (92). Amira’s reaction was, for me viewing the production, one of the most heartbreaking. Having not been accepted into a host country, she does not argue or try and diminish the chances of the other refugees. Rather she gathers her things and heads to wait for the bus that will take her back, but before doing she admits who she is to the hostages, admitting that it was she and not her cousin who suffered the persecution and trauma she spoke of before. This reclaiming of her identity and her refusal to be party to the violence speaks of a very different and important kind of courage.

The painting has become something of a pawn in the second act. Leo, attempting to save his life, lies about its worth, explaining how priceless the painting is, and the refugees issue a statement (again at Leo’s suggestion) early in Act Two that they will “fry” it off the wall if their demands are not met. When Karolyi enters the play with the response to their demands, he informs the refugees that they painting is worthless and without knowing it exposes Leo’s lies and risks his life. Oliver, however, finds evidence that the painting my really be what they suggest it is – this time through language. He shares his theory with all those in the Church, once again uniting everyone on stage through art. The history or origin theory of the painting is an issue unto itself, but the critical thing for me was that everyone was once again united through art and through story and it is there that the hope in the play resides for me.

I attended a special lecture and discussion with the playwright last week. Actually, I’ve been to two discussions about the play. One was with the director, playwright and dramaturge right after the performance and then there was another talk with David Edgar a few days later. At that second talk, someone asked about hope in the play and Edgar discussed it, but in a roundabout way and without giving a definite answer on whether he is hopeful. For me, there was hope in the play and it resided, as I indicated above, in those moments when the individuals are able to come together, to share who they are and their past and their art. They are able to speak not one language, but still to make themselves understood. Politics, religion, violence – all of these things and many others get in the way of communication, but art and story unite the characters at three critical points in the play, and it is those that make me hopeful and make me long for a better way, which to me is the purpose of a piece like Pentecost. The concluding image echoes this, as Leo and Gabriella read words from one of the refugee’s (Cleopatra) diaries – words she has overheard and writes down in an attempt to practice English. These are just fragments, words taken out of context, but the three concluding ones – words that Cleopatra wrote down when she heard Leo quote from the poem carved on the Statute of Liberty – are particularly powerful and speak to the basic human desires and needs that dominate the play: huddled, yearning, free.

But back for a moment to the painting and the fourth wall that I referred to in my post yesterday. The stand-off is ended by commandos bursting through a hole they blast in the painting, shooting many of the refugees and Oliver, who wearing the clothes of a refugee, is mistaken for one of the captors. In the final scene, Anna explains why they burst through the painting: “It is, apparently, the weakest wall” (104). Considering the director’s choice in the production I saw to not have the painting on stage, but rather to have the audience (as the fourth wall) represent the painting that line presents an interesting statement about both art and humanity. That art (and by extension the people that stand in for that art in this production) are the weakest wall speaks a great deal to me about how art can be devalued and how people can be weak when faced with any number of things. I think a play like Pentecost makes us question that weakness – both on an art and a human level – and hopefully makes us stronger so that at one point we – or at the last some of us – won’t be the weakest wall.

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